September 18, 2010

All Articles in Science Journals are Ghosted?

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:35 pm by mariawolters

I made the mistake of reading the comment thread of Ben Goldacre’s recent Grauniad column – I was scanning for David Colquhoun’s contribution – when I happened on this gem, posted by munci76 @ 4.17pm, 18/9/10

I used to work for a medical comms agency and medical writing was a big part of our business (I believe it still is).

I think you’d be surprised to learn that pretty much all papers in scientific journals are substantially written by agency staff, and as Ben says, the named authors only see the articles when they are at the latter stages. They usually get two edits.

We’d also write all the posters and powerpoint presentations for leading doctors (or Key Opinion Leaders, as we called them) when they presented at symposia at medical conferences. These were clearly sponsored by pharma companies, so it was more upfront.

And they do get paid. We called them ‘honoriaria’. They were cheques paid to the authors’ departments, rather than to them directly. A symposium appearance usually paid about a grand in my experience, though this would obviously vary.

I’m not sure what the payment arrangements were for journal articles, I didn’t really get so involved in that side of things.

There are two fallacies in this comment which riled me sufficiently to reactivate my Grauniad login. This is an expanded version of the reply I left there.

The first fallacy is something that irks me about a lot of the discussion of “science”, and that is equating “science” with the tiny little corner of knowledge procurement that oneself specialises in. Munci76 probably didn’t want to smear all of computer science, geology, palaeontology, zoology (insert your favourite science here), but s/he might well be quote mined that way.

The second fallacy is assuming that the whole is like the parts. If YOU and YOUR agency get plenty of business writing ghosted articles for SOME of the THOUSANDS of medical journals out there, this does NOT mean that ALL people do it.

I would even bet that there are many, many subfields of medical science out there where what Munci76 describes is the exception rather than the norm. For example, in the field of speech therapy, which I am somewhat familiar with, there are no pills, and there’s no money to be made there. Sure, there are people who promote certain analysis methods or therapy approaches, but firstly, people in the field know who they are and what their biases are likely to be, and secondly, they have graduate students and postdocs who do the writing for them.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t doubt that the practices Munci76 describes exist. And I don’t doubt that they are very expressly frowned upon by the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors or the IEEE, the main Engineering Society. Some journals explicitly require all authors to sign a statement that they have read the paper they are coauthors on, agree with the content, and fulfil the criteria of authorship. Such precautions and guidelines are an explicit reaction to practices alluded to by e.g. @schroedinger99 on Twitter of senior scientists putting their names on papers that they have never read.

For what it’s worth, the post that is described a bit further down in the comments on Ben’s article, that of a “medical writer with authorship”, is probably a reaction to the ICMJE guidelines – this would be somebody to help with the hard graft of paper writing and production, who now by convention needs to be named as an author.

What I DO doubt is that paying academics to front ghosted papers is pervasive in all of medical writing, much less in all of science writing.

Not all of medicine is pharma, not all pharma is corrupt, not all therapy is pills, and not all science is biomedical.



  1. tobintouch said,

    Thank you for this post, especially the end line. It irks me that the Wyeth/HRT “revelation” is starting to taint all medical and scientific publishing. Munci76’s experience represents only a small percentage of scientific publication, and I’m glad you called him/her out on it.

  2. Adam said,

    Great post.

    There are two things we can say with certainty:

    1. Some articles in the biomedical literature are ghostwritten in a particularly shady way

    2. We do not know how common they are.

    From my own experience, I would say that the kind of shameless thing described in Ben’s article, namely ghostwriters inserting marketing messages that aren’t backed up by science into articles, and authors signing off on them without reading them, is probably extremely rare. I’ve been involved in medical writing for over 14 years, and have never been asked to do anything like that.

    It’s also worth noting that having medical writers on board seems to be protective against fraud and to improve reporting quality.

    So by all means let’s do what we can to eliminate ghostwriting. But let’s also remember that most professional medical writers are perfectly ethical people who provide a useful service.

    BTW, I’ve made similar points in a response to Fugh-Berman’s article on the PLoS Medicine website.

    • mariawolters said,

      I absolutely agree with you that medical writers can provide a vital service, especially when crafting papers that are designed to be read by busy practitioners. The more efficiently and elegantly a message is communicated, the more likely it will be translated into practice (at least that’s what I would suspect – I haven’t done a literature search to back it up.) Proper title and keyword design are also important.

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